Geert Wilders, the highly controversial Dutch politician, spoke last night at Columbia on “free speech.”  Bwog’s Smoke and a Pancake Bureau Chief (look, we had to get the joke out of the way) Mark Hay was in attendance.  After the jump, Derek Turner, Communications Director for CUCR, provides a statement.

Geert WildersProtests were limited to a lone sign-waver decrying (without actually crying) Islamophobia. And only twice did the audience in any way jeer, but the upsets went almost completely unnoticed – there were no banner bearers. We must credit this neutrality to Wilders’s unexpected finesse and charm – rather than taking any bait, Wilders responded, “even though you call me ignorant like a clown, I applaud your use of freedom of speech” – and, naturally, the deflective powers of his mighty golden mane. Indeed, the command of Wilders over his audience, the prevalence of applause and amazing shortage of boos and outbursts, was completely unexpected. But the night was full of surprises and not all of them nearly so pleasant.

As one CIRCA board member told Bwog, “We marketed this as an event on free speech.” And Wilders did focus exclusively on free speech – for all of seven minutes, we counted. After the usually appreciate note to his hosting institution, Wilders made his key claim: that, in Europe and increasingly America, “free speech is no longer a given,” and, noting his need for twenty-four hour police protection, claims he, “would not consider [himself] as a free man in [the free speech] fight anymore.”

As for Wilders’ account of Islam, it best to relate his stance by a series of direct quotations: “I have nothing against Muslims. … In fact the majority of Muslims in Western society are law abiding people. […]. Islam is a wicked and totalitarian ideology [based on the Quran and the life of Muhammad …] The Quran is, unfortunately, an evil book.  […]  If you don’t believe in every part of Quran, you are a renegade. [… And finally:] There is no such thing as a moderate Islam.” These quotations are not cherry-picked or de-contextualized. Wilders delivered them in variations at multiple points in his speech, often as stand-alone statements, and when questioners attempted to clarify if he meant this exactly, he responded with resounding and steadfast affirmations.

Wilders suggests a clear path to escape this radicalization. First and foremost, he suggests a constitutional amendment ending cultural relativism, encouraging states to officially follow his lead and “proudly say that our Western culture is better than Islamic culture,” by acknowledging their Judaeo-Christian identity. Additionally, the west should halt Muslim immigration and adopt a policy of deportation for practitioners of jihad and/or shariah (essentially anything that does not conform to Western cultural ideals), along with more diplomatic methods.

Some salient points were raised in the question and answer segment, despite substantial pussyfooting (questioners were sure to acknowledge Wilders’ right to his own opinion and to free speech, seeking to avoid any sort of situation). Doesn’t Wilders’s attack undermine the foundation of Muslim culture? Don’t these attacks just add fuel to the fire? Isn’t all of this just one man’s interpretation of a highly complex and multi-faceted text and faith? If Christianity was spread by violence and intolerance and endured an era of conflict with secular, Western ideals, then why can Islam not assimilate to the West? And what do you say, should we give free speech to holocaust deniers?

For the majority of answers, see above; most of the responses were nearly word-for-word repetitions of statements from his lecture (and, in fact, a quick check on coverage of other lectures confirms that most of the lecture itself is a canned spiel delivered again and again nationwide).

And then he disappeared. The questions were cut off and within the space of a few seconds, Wilders was gone.  This too was rather disappointing for the event sponsors. The event was billed to run two hours but actually remained onstage (including the question and answer segment) from 8:45 PM to 9:41 PM – only fifty-six minutes. The CIRCA board member expressed discontent and dissatisfaction with this and the anti-Islamic focus.

After being pushed to the curb in the sweep to clear the building, many attendees noted a certain discontent with the caution of questioners. When one questioner was about to be hustled away from the microphone, snapped, “I will come to my question, but there is freedom of speech, isn’t there?” this received more applause than any other moment of the event.  Certainly, a fellow attendee agreed, the concern to respect Wilders’ right to speech and avoid an (non-violent, even) incident may have contributed to a forced civility.

Listening to Wilders speak is something of a trip, and most everyone stumbled out just a little bit confused. Why were the questions not more contentious? Wilders, for all one-sidedness, has his points and valid roots to his fears. How far he takes them and how he addresses them are subject to disputes, but large portions of Europe are increasingly upset and unsettled by their Muslim minorities. And Wilders is a voice in the wilderness. Understanding Wilders, listening to him, and learning how to deal with him, either to help or to hinder his rise, is of vital importance to future European-American-Muslim relations. Only problem is that we, as this lecture demonstrated, really have no clue as to how to deal with him.

From the Columbia University College Republicans:

The CUCR invited Geert Wilders not because of his views, which the club does not in any way endorse, but rather because he is one of the more prominent victims of free speech limitation in Europe and in other parts of the world. As anyone who has studied the history of free speech knows, its defense lies not where mainstream views are voiced but rather among those who hold unpopular, offensive, or extreme views. Geert Wilders is one such person. His views, especially about Islam, are far from mainstream and definitely lie on the extreme end of the spectrum. However, CUCR does not think that that is a reason to criminally prosecute someone (as Wilders is in the Netherlands) or restrict someone’s travel (as Wilders has experienced until recently in the UK).

This organization invited Wilders to come speak at CU as someone who has experienced a dramatic limitation of his right to speaking freely. We didn’t invite him to talk about his views on Islam. We find the fact that he spent so much of his speech talking about those views regrettable, but he did explain that those views play a part in his concern for free speech. CUCR thought that the parts of his speech about free speech were illuminating and constructive to the larger discussion about this concept on campus. We found his proposal to introduce a “First Amendment” law in the EU especially exciting, as it would give European citizens the same rights that we enjoy in the United States.

As for concern for the event in light of the events at Tempe University, CUCR is proud to say that we were confident that the Columbia community would give him a chance to speak, which they did. Columbia students, passionate as they are, have an admirable respect for dialogue and CUCR believes that is exactly what took place last night, especially during the Q & A session. The students, instead of shouting down Wilders like those at Temple did on Tuesday, expressed their passionate views regarding Wilders through thoughtful questions and constructive inquiry. That sort of behavior is a testament to the open minded nature of students at Columbia.

Regarding concerns about our image, CUCR realized that bringing Wilders to campus would have its risks, but we were confident that the Columbia community would understand that CUCR was not endorsing his views by inviting him. Instead, CUCR and our cosponsoring organizations were taking a stand for free speech and its presence for all individuals. Again, we would have preferred him to talk more about free speech, but it would have been hypocritical to impose strict limits on the boundaries of his speech after voicing such opposition to limitation of free speech.

Overall, CUCR believes the event was a success, if only for starting a discussion on campus about what place free speech has and should have in the world today.